I realise I’m a bit late to reflect on the impact of the picture of a boy on the beach and the sudden change of heart it brought about in the UK, and if current headlines on immigration are anything to go by I may have missed my chance. But being in the strange but privileged position of living my life half here and half there, the “refugee crisis” has been much on my mind.
I recognised the deep value in the compassion which has motivated many people to offer their spare room to a refugee, and it’s been good to see the previously pervasive language of fear and exclusion being challenged. But at the same time, I deeply hoped that the return of Syria to our headlines might also prompt our compassion to extend to Syria itself and to its neighbours struggling under the pressure of hosting 96% of its refugees.
And yet at the same time I also questioned whether offering practical support to refugees whether in Europe or closer to Syria is anything more than putting a sticking plaster on a deeper and more complex situation that requires a real solution. What difference does it really make to give food and blankets, or to care for children and families, in the bigger and incomprehensible context of air strikes and violence and ISIS and power and politics?
Something I’ve been reminded of while I’ve been in Lebanon this month is the deep longing most Syrians have not to leave their country at all. The team of young people from Syria I was with last week described taking a group of children to say goodbye to one of their friends who was leaving Syria:
‘Afterwards his friends got out of the car and sat on the ground crying and wouldn’t stop – this was the third one of their group of friends who was leaving Syria.’
When the children were asked about their dreams and hopes for the future, they replied that their dream is to be able to stay together, but they can’t because ISIS is coming. If our only response is to try to bring more and more refugees to Europe and help them there, that can’t be a complete solution; but there’s so much that is complicated about it that it can seem easier to ignore the questions.
I know that I’m unbelievably lucky to be able to actually be here in Lebanon at this time, and as usual, some things I’ve seen and heard have spoken into my questions during this trip.
Child protection policies and procedures might not sound like something to get excited about, but this week they have been for me, largely because of an incredible NGO I’ve been working with for the first time. They provide high quality education and medical care in one of the poorest areas of Beirut where most people, and the police, never go. Violence against children an everyday occurrence, and cases of abuse are disturbingly common. In this complicated context where there is no clear path to know how to help a child at risk of or being abused, it would be much easier not to even raise the issue and simply provide education and medicines, a much clearer task without blurred edges or grey areas.
But one of the things that has encouraged me most of all during this trip is that rather than looking away, this organisation has been deliberately working to find the very best ways to respond to the complex cases they are finding. It comes at a high cost of time, commitment, and real personal risk, and with an increased amount of frustration and depth of pain when you do all you can and yet in a failing and under-resourced legal system, in some cases nothing changes at all – but they keep going.
And in the same way, as we work out our own response to the refugee crisis, we too can allow ourselves ask the big questions and engage with the complexities of the situation, at the same time as deliberately choosing to take practical action in the best way we can. As this NGO has found, the more we know and the more questions we ask, the more painful and difficult it might be. But paradoxically at the same time, when we really engage with the realities of the situation, hope also emerges.
This inseparability of pain and joy was very clearly illustrated for me by the time we spent last week with the team from Syria. They spent most of their time laughing and joking and enjoying being together, but as they prepared to leave on the last night there was a sense of heaviness in remembering that they were returning to the insecurity of their location in Syria and to uncertain futures.
Just as pain and joy can exist side by side, I’ve been wrong to think about our response as a zero-sum either-or scenario when in fact of course we can also support refugees in our midst in Europe at the same time as taking action to care about those closer to Syria. And we must – these are two parts of one situation in a world in which we’re more and more connected to one another, whatever fences we try to build.
Among the many stories the team from Syria shared, one was about an activity where children needed to put their hands on each other’s shoulders, and how a Christian child overcame his initial reluctance and chose to reach out to the Muslim boy he was standing beside.
Every time a child refuses to believe the messages of violence and hate they are surrounded by is a new chance for a different future – and hope breaks through.